Remembering an event in first-person perspective can make the memory stronger


Think of a memory from your childhood.

Are you seeing the memory through your own eyes, or can you see yourself, while viewing that child as if you were an observer?

“If memory was simply an exact recollection of our experiences, one would think that we would recall our early memories from the first-person perspective,” said Peggy St Jacques, assistant professor in the Faculty of Science’s Department of Psychology.

“Recalling a memory is not like watching a film of what happened.

We edit and modify memories each time we recall them.”

The perspective through we which recall our memories–either seeing it through our own eyes in the first person, or viewing as an observer in the third person–can have an effect on the vividness and potency of the memory, with stronger recollection when perceived in the first person.

“A number of studies have shown that this can impact how we later recall these memories,” said St Jacques, who recently authored a paper exploring this phenomenon.

“Viewing memories in the third person tends to reduce the vividness of that experience, as well as the amount of emotion that we feel.

Our memory system is very dynamic and flexible.”

And that’s probably a good thing, St Jacques explained. Our ability to edit our memories allows us to grow and change how we perceive both ourselves and our experiences.

For example, by changing the way we feel about a troubling memory, we’re able to learn and move forward, helping those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as just one example.

So, the next time you recall a memory in the third person, ask yourself if that memory is real or not.

“It’s possible because you’re not recalling that experience through your own eyes that the memory is distorted in some way,” she said.

“There could be some aspects that are false or edited.”

Using virtual reality

But if our memories are influenced by the perspective we use to recall them, what does that mean for experiences we see for the first time in third-person?

That’s one question that St Jacques is further exploring–using virtual reality technology.

This shows a girl in a garden

The perspective through we which recall our memories–either seeing it through our own eyes in the first person, or viewing as an observer in the third person–can have an effect on the vividness and potency of the memory, with stronger recollection when perceived in the first person. The image is in the public domain.

“Virtual reality allows us to have immersive experiences that seem really real to us but that we experience in the third person,” she said.

“In our lab, we’re using virtual reality to look at how the experience of virtual environments in first- and third-person impact people’s memories.

Our working hypothesis is that, after a delay, if you’ve formed memories from a third-person perspective, that the memory will not be as durable and will tend to lose vividness over time.”

When remembering an event, such as a childhood beachside vacation, individuals often report re-experiencing images related to the event. For example, an individual might visualize him- or herself sitting on the beach, watching as the waves lap over their feet and the sun shines on their head. Although this imagery can be experienced in several sensory modalities (e.g., the sound of the waves or the warmth of the sun), visual images are more commonly reported than other modalities (Rubin, Schrauf, & Greenberg, 2003). Rather than simply being frequent, it has been argued that these visual images are integral to the retrieval of autobiographical memories (e.g., Brewer, 19861996Greenberg & Rubin, 2003Rubin, 2005Rubin & Greenberg, 1998). Thus, to understand autobiographical memory retrieval, we must understand the role of the visual imagery accompanying retrieval.

One aspect of visual images that has drawn growing attention in recent years is the perspective from which an image is viewed. In the scenario above, the event is recalled from a third-person perspective; the image originates from an external viewpoint as though observing the original event as an onlooker. Conversely, an event might be recalled from a first-person perspective, which is an image that originates from the same viewpoint experienced at encoding. These perspectives have also been referred to as observer and field perspectives, respectively (Nigro & Neisser, 1983).

Although the distinction between first- and third-person perspectives was first introduced over 100 years ago (Freud, 1899/1953; Henri & Henri, 1896), this aspect of imagery was largely ignored until Nigro and Neisser (1983) experimentally examined it. Since this first study, the examination of perspective’s role in autobiographical memory retrieval has grown slowly. Ten years later, a total of 8 studies had included a measure of perspective, with only one focusing specifically on the role of perspective in retrieval (Robinson & Swanson, 1993). Five years after that, the number had only grown to eighteen. However, in the past 10 years over 50 additional studies have included a measure of perspective. For example, visual perspective has been examined in studies of emotion (Berntsen & Rubin, 2006D’Argembeau, Comblain, & Van Der Linden, 2003Gollnisch & Averill, 1993Robinson & Swanson, 1993Strongman & Kemp, 1991Talarico, LaBar, & Rubin, 2004), flashbulb memories (Bohn & Berntsen, 2007Talarico & Rubin, 20032007), gender differences (Huebner & Fredrickson, 1999), cultural differences (Cohen & Gunz, 2002), remember/know judgments of childhood memories (Crawley & French, 2005), true and false memories (Heaps & Nash, 2001), imagination inflation (Libby, 2003Sharman, Garry, & Hunt, 2005), projecting one’s self into the past and future (D’Argembeau & Van der Linden, 2004) and the effect of aging and traumatic brain injury on autobiographical memory retrieval (Piolino et al., 2006Piolino et al., 2007).

This growing literature has shown that perspective is not simply an aspect of phenomenology that “comes along for the ride” during retrieval, but rather can affect how we think and feel about memories. For example, perspective can affect the emotional intensity experienced during recall (Berntsen & Rubin, 2006Robinson & Swanson, 1993), the type of information individuals recall (McIsaac & Eich, 2002), and how similarly individuals rate current selves compared to past selves (Libby & Eibach, 2002Libby, Eibach, & Gilovich, 2005). In addition, perspective seems to play a role in several clinical disorders, such as depression (Kuyken & Howell, 2006Lemogne et al., 2006Williams & Moulds, 2007), social anxiety (e.g., Coles, Turk, & Heimberg, 2002Coles, Turk, Heimberg, & Fresco, 2001Hackmann, Surway, & Clark, 1998Spurr & Stopa, 2003Stopa & Bryant, 2004Wells, Clark, & Ahmad, 1998Wells & Papageorgiou, 1999), agoraphobia (Day, Holmes, & Hackmann, 2004Wells & Papageorgiou, 1999), body dysmorphic disorder (Osman, Cooper, Hackmann, & Veale, 2004), obsessive-compulsive disorder (Terry & Barwick, 19951998/99), and post-traumatic stress disorder (Berntsen, Willert, & Rubin, 2003Kenny & Bryant, 2007McIsaac & Eich, 2004Porter & Birt, 2001).

However, as this literature grows, fundamental questions about the construct still remain unanswered. For example, a review of the literature reveals that the way perspective has been conceptualized differs substantially across studies. Consider Nigro and Neisser’s (1983) study in which they used the “terms observer memory and field memory for… two kinds of recollection (p. 468).” This terminology, an “observer memory” or a “field memory,” suggests that a memory is recalled using only one perspective. For example, when recalling a childhood beach vacation, one would use either a first-person perspective or a third-person perspective. The response alternatives provided to participants by Nigro and Neisser support this characterization; participants could respond “field,” “observer,” or “neither.” Many investigations have adopted a similar methodology (e.g., Brewer & Pani, 1996Crawley & French, 2005D’Argembeau et al., 2003Frank & Gilovich, 1989Kihlstrom & Harackiewicz, 1982Kuyken & Howell, 2006Libby, 2003McNamara, Benson, McGenny, Brown, & Albert, 2005Robinson & Swanson, 1993Strongman & Kemp, 1991), which corresponds with the notion that a memory is eitherfirst person or third person.

Others seem to take a similar standpoint but use a different methodology in which participants respond using a continuous scale. For example, Wells and colleagues (1998) used a continuous scale anchored at −3 (first person) and +3 (third person) to test the hypothesis that individuals with social phobia would remember social events using a third-person perspective when compared to a control group. The mean perspective rating was positive for the social phobia group and negative for the control group. The authors concluded that “social phobics took a markedly observer perspective, whereas controls generally took a field perspective” (p. 633). This implies that perspective ratings above the median value of their scale corresponded to a third-person perspective; those below the median value corresponded to first-person perspective. Thus, memories were experienced as either first-person or third-person perspective.

However, two pieces of evidence suggest this is not an accurate characterization of perspective. First, Robinson and Swanson (1993) demonstrated that individuals were able to shift the perspective they used during retrieval. That is, if an event was initially remembered using a first-person perspective, individuals could then change their image to a third-person perspective after a short delay (see also Berntsen & Rubin, 2006). This suggests a memory is not a “first-person memory” or a “third-person memory,” but rather perspective can change, along with other aspects of an event, during retrieval.

Second, several studies have demonstrated the perspective experienced during retrieval can change within a single retrieval attempt. For example, when remembering a childhood beach vacation, a third-person perspective image may initially come to mind followed by a first-person perspective. The earliest study to hint at this possibility provided two scales to participants, one pertaining to first-person perspective and the other to third-person perspective (Gollnish & Averill, 1993). This type of measurement suggests the experience of first-person and third-person perspectives is independent of one another; analogous methods have been used by others (Berntsen, Willert, & Rubin, 2003Bohn & Berntsen, 2007). Similarly, others have provided participants with a “field/observer” response in addition to the standard “field” and “observer” responses (Piolino, Chetelat et al., 2007Piolino et al., 2006Piolino, Desgranges et al., 2007Piolino et al., 2004Viard et al., 2007). In these studies, individuals did make responses consistent with the experience of more than one perspective. However, these responses were less common than responses indicating the experience of a single perspective. Others have used single scales that allow for the experience of more than one perspective per retrieval attempt. For example, Porter and Birt (2001) used a 3-point scale whose values corresponded to “never seeing one’s self,” “seeing one’s self sometimes,” and “always seeing one’s self in their image” (see also Heubner & Fredrickson, 1999). These findings suggest that the experience of one perspective does not prohibit the experience of the other, contrary to the notion of “first-person memories” and “third-person memories.”

Another standpoint is that the two perspectives are complementary to one another; a greater experience of one perspective corresponds to a lesser experience of the other. An example of this is provided by a study examining social phobia and recall of social situations (Coles, 2002). Participants responded using a single scale anchored at “field” and “observer.” The authors conclude that individuals with social phobias recalled social situations “from a more observer/less field perspective” than control participants (p. 422). This same characterization is used by the Memory Experiences Questionnaire (Sutin & Robins, 2007), which measures perspective using 6 questions. Three of the questions pertain to participants’ experience of a first-person perspective questions and the remaining 3 pertain to third-person perspective. The third-person perspective ratings are then reverse coded in order to create a perspective score. Thus, a high rating on a third-person perspective measure is equated with a low rating on a first-person perspective scale.

It should be noted that reviewing the manner in which perspective has been discussed and measured is not presented as a critique, but as a means of illustrating that our understanding of perspective is still rather vague and even conflicts across studies. Furthermore, issues of measurement are raised because they should reflect the underlying representation of the construct they measure. For example, using a measure in which participants can respond either“first person” or “third person” reflects a different phenomenological experience from a measure that allows for a mix of perspectives.

Based on this review, there are three common ways of characterizing the experience of perspective. First, memories can be either first person or third person, but not both; only one perspective can be experienced during a particular retrieval attempt. This will be referred to as the “mutually exclusive framework.” Second, the two perspectives are two ends of a continuum and are complementary. An individual may be able to experience both perspectives during a single retrieval episode, but the experience of more of one necessitates the experience of less of the other. This will be referred to as the “complementary framework.” Third, individuals can experience both a first- and third-person perspective during recall and they are not dependent on one another; individuals can experience a strong first-person perspective and strong third-person perspective during the same retrieval attempt. This will be referred to as the “independent framework.”

The current study examines the feasibility of these three frameworks by observing the response patterns provided by individuals using two measurement techniques favored by perspective studies, as well as a novel technique. If the mutually exclusive framework is correct, participants’ responses should be consistent with the experience of either a first-person or a third-person perspective, but not both perspectives, regardless of the format of response options. If the complementary framework is correct, participants should respond in a way that indicates they can experience more than one perspective during a single retrieval episode; yet, memories that are more third person should also be less first person, and vice versa. Finally, if the independent framework is correct, participants should respond in a way that indicates they can experience more than one perspective during a retrieval episode regardless of the response options they are given. In all three frameworks, it is possible for participants to respond that they have a very weak experience of both first-person and third-person perspective. However, only in the independent framework can participants respond that they have a very strong experience of both experiences.

These alternatives were examined in three studies that varied the response options provided to participants. Studies 1 and 2 used response options common to perspective studies. In Study 1, participants responded using a single continuous scale, anchored at first-person and third-person perspective. In Study 2, participants responded using two continuous scales, one corresponding to first person and the other to third person. Study 3 used a novel technique in which participants were asked to describe as many perspectives as they experienced.

In all three studies, participants recalled events from five specific time periods spread across their lifetimes. Time periods were used for two reasons, both of which relate to the finding that remote memories are more often remembered using a third-person rather than first-person perspective (Nigro & Neisser, 1983; Frank & Gilovich; Robinson & Swanson, 1993; Piolino, Desgranges, 2006Piolino, Desgranges, 2007; Pronin & Ross, 2006; Sutin & Robins, 2007; cf., Brewer & Pani, 1996Viard, et al., 2007). First, asking for memories from a range of time periods helped ensure that participants would experience both first- and third-person perspectives. Second, the relationship between perspective and memory age is one of the most consistent findings within the perspective literature, which we used to our advantage. Given this finding is reliable across studies, we should find similar effects with any valid measure of perspective. In addition, if we find responses consistent with the complementary or independent frameworks, a reassessment of previous studies using a dichotomous response option may be necessary.

Based on previous findings showing that, when given the option, individuals respond in a way that indicates the experience of more than one perspective for a particular memory (e.g., Huebner & Fredrickson, 1999Piolino, 200420062007), it was predicted that participants’ responses would support the independent framework. It was also predicted that the effect of memory age would be observed as in previous studies. This was based primarily on a study that adopted the “complementary framework” and found a correlation between perspective and memory age similar to other studies (Sutin and Robins, 2007). Thus, it was expected that the effect would be robust enough to hold across measurement techniques.

Finally, given that evidence exists to support the independent framework, one may wonder why an examination of these frameworks is necessary. The primary motivation is that even though evidence for the independent framework has been presented, using techniques that correspond to the mutually exclusive and complementary frameworks are still the most common. To understand perspective and how it operates in autobiographical memory, there must be agreement about how individuals experience perspective; and the way in which perspective is measured should reflect this experience. This is particularly important given the growing number of studies examining perspective. Moreover, a series of three studies using different measures, but the same participant population and event cues, will allow a more direct comparison of the common response measures.

University of Alberta
Media Contacts: 
Katie Willis – University of Alberta
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“A New Perspective on Visual Perspective in Memory”. The perspective through we which recall our memories–either seeing it through our own eyes in the first person, or viewing as an observer in the third person–can have an effect on the vividness and potency of the memory, with stronger recollection when perceived in the first person..
Current Directions in Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0963721419850158


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